Conserving animals may not be worth it - Protection may be costing human lives

What if current methods of animal protection were costing human lives? Are such policies justifiable? James Sikwati explores this issue in his latest column from Kenya's Daily Nation. Observes Sikwati, "Human-centred conservation is crucial because it gives incentives to the people to protect both animals and vegetation."

Daily Nation on the Web


With close to 27 tonnes of ivory stockpiles worth millions of dollars, Kenyans are watching keenly as international non-governmental organisations lobby for a continued ban of trade in ivory. The situation is made even more complicated by the recent call for elephant culling as a result of over-population in one of the parks.

Kenyans may as well learn something from their South African counterparts who, when shut out of the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development, marched in protest asking the world to listen to them. Waving placards that read, "Trade not Aid", "People or Pandas?", "Profits beat Poverty", they sent a clear message about the plight of the poor.

The human species has depended on others for food, medicine, clothing and shelter. When they find value in something and are able to own the source of that value, they protect and manage it well. Kenyans eat tonnes of beef daily, but we have never heard of cattle becoming an endangered species. The wild species that once used to roam the countryside are non-existent largely because everybody owned them and hence none had the incentive to keep them.

In Kenya, conservationists and fund-raisers collect millions of dollars in the name of protecting elephants. They have the incentive to retain the status quo. To the locals, whose crops are destroyed, maintaining the status quo is suicidal. To address the elephant problem, ways should be found to devolve responsibility to the stakeholders.

The Wildlife Act, 1989

The Wildlife Act of 1989 identifies stakeholders as competent authorities that include the relevant minister, the local County Council as the competent authority for the wildlife on trust land under its jurisdiction, and the individual land-owner, group ranch or corporate body as a competent authority on private land.

This approach to legal recognition of stakeholders is making wildlife management difficult. The Government ought to cede much of its land and that held in trust to the third category of individual land-owners, group ranch and corporate bodies. It is practical to hold this category accountable. This will give the individuals incentives to conserve wildlife.

According to the observations made by the Kenya Government National Development Plan (2002-2008), policy failures in this sector are largely due to over-reliance on prohibition of the consumptive use of wildlife and the use of resources in protected areas. This has contributed to limited gains from wildlife.

Kenya's wildlife contribution to the economy is underestimated and both Government and local people do not realise its potential value. Revenues are collected only from one source, the non-consumptive limiting benefits to the people and the Government. An elephant's skin and tusks can yield close to $3,600. The elephant faces extinction because it is an open access resource.

Recent calls to foreign governments or NGOs to buy up ivory stockpiles and destroy them defeats economic logic. Will this assist the poor? Will erecting fences around parks without addressing the poverty of communities around them be of positive long-term impact?

The rural poor who live closest to wild animals are essential to successful conservation. Human-centred conservation is crucial because it gives incentives to the people to protect both animals and vegetation.

The present debate is similar to a story narrated by Stephen Edwards about a farmer who wanted all birds that eat his millet destroyed. In the same meeting was another gentleman who used to trade in the same birds and he wanted all birds conserved. To help these two, the arbitrator had to come up with a strategy in which the bird-seller could compensate or share benefits with the millet farmer.

For many years, Kenyans have complained about the havoc wreaked by marauding elephants that destroy crops and even kill people. Over 75 per cent of the deaths caused by wildlife in Kenya have been by elephants. The people who face these dangers daily get less than one per cent of benefits that accrue from the conservation of these animals.

Living in constant fear

Animal lobbyists seem keen to alienate Kenyans from their own resources. Hunger, sickness, misery and early deaths are a common feature, with the majority of the people around parks living in constant fear.

Conservationists have resorted to blaming the people as a danger to wildlife and hence the need to create sanctuaries for wildlife. This is done regardless of the glaring evidence that the problem is not population increase, but rather economic inefficiency. Modern agricultural techniques are sufficient to feed people on the existing land space. All that is needed is proper land tenure systems and enforced property rights.

To further destroy the legal value of wildlife is to destroy the incentive meant to make people retain habitats for wildlife. What is needed is to put a price tag on elephants and they will not disappear.

Governments cannot solve conservation problems without listening to the communities. The ban on ivory trade and barricading of animals will not solve the problem. Kenyans do not need aid from the developed countries and conservation NGOs that are keen to prevent them making use of this resource.

To raise money to simply preserve animals is to subsidise poverty. It is urgent, therefore, that the voice of the local people who interact with wildlife be heard during the upcoming Cites meeting in Chile.

Mr Shikwati is the director, Inter-Region Economic Network [IREN Kenya]


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